Italy's Lega Nord has probably been dreaming of this moment for years: a head-on European collision over immigration, with Italy pitted against the Commission and other EU governments. The 20,000 North African migrants stranded on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa provided Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni (from Lega Nord, see picture) with an"opportunity" to make a point that he hardly would miss out on.
Speaking after yesterday's heated meeting of EU interior ministers in Luxembourg - where Italy found itself completely isolated with only Malta on its side - Maroni launched a full-scale attack on virtually everyone. He said that the EU is
"an institution which takes action quickly only to bail-out banks and declare wars, but when it comes to showing concrete solidarity to a country like Italy, then [the EU] hides itself...I wonder if it really makes sense [for Italy] to remain part of the EU."Ouch!
Italy isn't in any way contemplating leaving the EU of course, so Maroni is engaging in political posturing. This is obviously a hugely sensitive issue, but Maroni needs to chill a bit. It's not like Italy has completely been left hanging, as Maroni seems to suggest. This year, the country receives roughly €140 million in EU funding aimed at tackling various migration-related issues. In addition, it hasn't exactly used the billions it has recieved in EU structural funding in the most effective way - Italy's south is probably the biggest bottomless pit for EU funding. Instead of wasting it, this money could be used to deal with social exclusion and create more jobs for migrants. Call it "concrete solidarity" with European taxpayers.
But there's lots more to this story, and Italy does have a point, in so far as the distribution of migrants across Europe is hugely uneven (though this doesn't only apply to southern Europe. Finland took in 700 asylum seekers in 2010 for example, whereas its neighbour Sweden last year accepted close to 30,000 of them, which alongside Malta, is the most per capita in Europe). This is to say that if the wave of migrants from North Africa continues, and intensifies, the European Commission, and the member states that support this agenda, has been given a pretty strong hook for pushing a common EU immigration policy, including "burden sharing" between member states. Writing in Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, the EU's genial Home Affairs Commissioner, Cecilia Malmström, recently argued that, in the light of recent events in the EU's Southern neighbourhood,
“The need for a common EU policy on asylum and immigration is urgent...I hope that the current situation also contributes to the EU taking several steps forward towards a common asylum and immigration policy.”For various reasons, Italy's clout in Europe has been seriously reduced recently - the country is unlikely to emerge as winners from this recent spat. However, calls for a common EU immigration policy won't go away - whether we agree or disagree with it, it's hard to a find more controversial area to outsource to Brussels, so this is likely to drag on.
In fact, it's up there with cross-border bail-outs and EU-enforced austerity measures, as the top issue that really will test the limits of European integration.